The Church and the Plague - Learning from History (Part four of four)

April 01, 2020

We see what Holy Mother Church and her children have witnessed throughout the centuries: many plagues, as well as their accompanying hysteria and upheavals. But the response has always been the same – to remain at the side and at the service of those who suffer.

As in the past, the present pandemic is also for us, as Catholics, a schooling and testing – a testing of our faith and hope, a schooling in charity.

We must never waver in our conviction that God is in charge, that He loves us and that if we try to return that love, all things will work for our good. No matter the concrete circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is essential that we nourish, strengthen and protect this faith with the Sacraments (when possible), prayer, penance, the rosary, spiritual reading, and all of the Catholic practices that Holy Mother Church has given us.

Panic and anxiety only give rise to selfishness and despair, leading us either to abandon our neighbor or to think that God has left us. Nothing will plant and nourish the seeds of fear so much as continually taking in and dwelling on the latest news and statistics. We must also steer clear of conspiracy theories, which do not offer any concrete solution to the problem at hand and only feed a sense of despair or, as has so often happened in the past, prompt us to reckless actions against some imagined enemy.

Supernatural charity has guided Catholics in times of plague not to turn in selfishly on themselves, but to look to Our Lord and see, by the eyes of faith, that same Lord in their suffering neighbors.

The Black Death gives us an example of charity and sacrificial service with the innumerable clerics, religious, and laymen who provided to the sick whatever help they could. On the material level, they nursed, cleaned, and fed them and did what they could to alleviate their needs. On the spiritual level, they prayed for and with them, gave spiritual comfort, kept them company as they lay dying, and in the end, buried them – all the while, knowing that they might be among the next to follow them to the grave.

But we must not forget that there is no true charity without true prudence. It is prudence that protects us from recklessness and presumption, which are as sinful as selfishness and despair. And it is prudence that teaches us that to practice true charity. We must seek first to preserve ourselves and others from harm.

The example of Catholics in the Black Death again provides a concrete example. As the illness was believed to be a “corruption of the air,” they took whatever precautions were advised by the medical science of the age to “purify” the air – covering their mouth and nose with cloths drenched in vinegar, burning sweet-smelling herbs, and carrying and smelling similar herbs.

We know today how this particular disease spreads. Therefore, in a spirit of charity towards ourselves and our neighbors, and of justice towards the constituted authorities, we must submit to the civil regulations and medical advice intended to preserve ourselves of contagion and to avoid spreading it.

In these difficult times, we must never lose sight of the fact that this world is not our home. Holy Mother Church has always sought to lead souls to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (1 Col. 3:1-3). In times of crisis, we must remember that all the trials and tribulations we face have been permitted by our loving Father in heaven in order to earn our own place there for all eternity: “For that which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation worketh for us above measure, exceedingly an eternal weight of Glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).